“I don’t have bodyguards clearing traffic or tailors stitching my clothes. This is America,” says Saba Kebede of McLean, who laughed and looked at her husband, Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, the grandson of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
On Whistling Duck Drive in Upper Marlboro resides Kofi Boateng, an Ashanti king of Ghana — there are many — who works as a CPA and whose palace is a sprawling McMansion with a football game on the flat-screen TV and pictures of West African royalty hanging over the fireplace.
“Sometimes, these suburbs are so quiet they remind me of my village in Ghana,” says Boateng, closing his eyes and listening to the sound of nighttime crickets mixing with the purr of West African music from a party in his basement.
Kebede and Boateng are just two of the many lesser-known royals who live in the Washington suburbs. They include King Kigeli Ndahindurwa V, who ruled Rwanda until his overthrow in 1961 and now calls Oakton home, and Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who lives in Potomac and runs an advocacy association that is outspoken about the need for democracy in his home country.
While Washington is traditionally a destination for those who seek power, it’s also a refuge for those who no longer have it. Many of the royals who call the region home are in exile; others came because their grandparents or parents, who were deposed, thought that the United States offered better opportunities for their children, while Washington offered the prestige and access of living in a world capital.
Many lead stereotypically Washingtonian lives. They’re diplomats of a different sort, rubbing shoulders with World Bank officials, human rights advocates and senators at embassy functions and fundraisers. Being royals, they preside over births, weddings and funerals in a ceremonial capacity. Being suburbanites, they get stuck in traffic, pick up dry cleaning and help their children with homework.
“In America, the title and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee,” jokes Gul Ahmed Zikria, an obstetric surgeon who hails from the Afghan royal family and completed his surgical residence at Georgetown University Hospital. “But if royals are at home anywhere, it’s Washington, D.C.”
They leave their castles and courts behind, but not their status among their countrymen or the duty that comes with it — even when they live in the Maryland suburbs, work in a cubicle and buy lunch at a salad bar.
In the shaded courtyard of an Ethiopian orthodox church in Alexandria, Prince Selassie and his wife, Princess Kebede, are wading through a crowd of women wearing gauzy cotton wraps over their hair and bowing in prayer. A priest holding a silver cross ushers the royal couple into the church’s basement. With incense burning, they jostle to take their seats around a table for a traditional Ethiopian meal.
“Wait! Please, don’t sit there,” the priest calls out. “Come to the front of the table. You can’t just sit anywhere. You’re very famous.”
Outside the church, the Selassies seem like any other Washington area family. The prince works at the International Strategic Studies Association, a think tank in Alexandria focusing on issues such as water security in Africa. The princess spends her days approving mortgage loans for the Congressional Federal Credit Union.
But royals are becoming increasingly important to the Ethiopian community, which sees its history in the face of Prince Selassie. There is a growing movement among the younger generation to honor the controversial legacy of the prince’s grandfather.
The emperor’s elegant photograph and his full title — “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and Elect of God” — is displayed in many Ethiopian restaurants. Soccer teams around Washington wear jerseys with the emperor’s gaunt, bearded face. At a recent D.C. festival honoring the emperor, he was celebrated as an elder statesman of African anti-colonialism who stood up to Italian invaders and forged the country’s closest links with the United States.
Prince Selassie also heads the Crown Council of Ethiopia, a group that works to retain dynastic traditions and highlight the emperor’s achievements. The council would like constitutional monarchy to return to Ethiopia, although there is no plan to restore that system.
“We never abdicated the throne,” the prince points out.
The prince surprised traditionalists in his socially conservative nation when he divorced his first wife. He later met Kebede, whom he married in February.
“Maybe there are still fairy tales,” says Kebede, taking hold of her husband’s arm. “They just happen in lands far, far away, like Alexandria, Virginia.”
On a chilly fall afternoon, Zoulaikha Zikria orders mushroom soup at La Madeleine on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, where she’s a regular.
“Bonjour, madam. I have your favorite,” a cashier from Gabon says, and the two women chat in their adopted language.
Zikria, who is known professionally by the last name Younoszai looks like an Afghan Anna Wintour: slim with a porcelain complexion, oversize sunglasses and a neat bob of thick chestnut hair.
She’s a Sorbonne-educated, recently retired Georgetown University French professor. She’s also a member of Afghanistan’s royal family, an extended clan scattered throughout Northern Virginia; its members include Crown Prince Ahmad Shah Khan, a Sufi poet who prefers to avoid the limelight.
For the most part, other Afghan royals say they don’t want to be photographed or appear at embassy events. They’d like to weigh in on the problems in Afghanistan but say they shouldn’t, in part because they fear for their safety; an Islamic extremist stabbed exiled Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah in 1991.
Zikria and her brother Gul Ahmed Zikria, the surgeon, live relatively quiet lives amid memories of a different age. “You see, we grew up during what I witnessed as Afghanistan’s belle epoque,” Zikria says.
“We lived in Afghanistan during a time when I was so free. I would jump on trees, leap over brooks, ride my bicycle in the garden at night. One night, I remember returning a book to a classmate. I went on an open carriage with Yassin, our loyal coachman, to Kabul and returned in the moonlight with no fear.”
She’s silent for a while and then quietly says: “The freedom we had during that time, well no Afghan woman has had it since. And I wonder if they will ever have it again.”
Zikria still dresses in her late mother’s clothes, “cherishing them” because they remind her of that different time. She shares a house with her sister, who owns a hair salon in Prince William County. They have a view of the Shenandoah mountains, which, she says, are a little like the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.
“Look daddy, the king is here!” calls out 6-year-old Frederick Oliver Quaye, who is dressed in a tuxedo with a purple vest and matching bow tie. It’s a Sunday evening on a relaxed holiday weekend, there are libations flowing, and fufu and fried fish are being served at a wedding party.
Kofi Boateng is the regional king of Ghana — he represents the Washington area. He enters his basement with his counterpart, Queen Mother Nana Ama Achiaa, as if they were arriving at their palace. The king holds a fly whisk, often used by chiefs back home to show authority; the queen mother adjusts her ornate yellow-gold crown. Both are draped in bright orange, green and red kente cloth. Their arms are stacked with gold bracelets; on their feet are thick flip-flops adorned with gold-plated fish and flower buds.
The royals take their seats in the salmon-colored basement family room on thrones asparkle with copper and animal skin to signify power and command authority. A receiving line of Ghanaian Americans forms to greet them. Some shake their hands; others just stand at attention.
“It’s like when an officer in the military comes in. You show respect,” says Frederick Quaye, the boy’s father and a Ghanaian American recently back from serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq. “This may be America, but they are our royals.”
They may appear to have replicated Ghana in this basement in Prince George’s County. But there’s one big difference: These royals, who are not husband and wife, are elected. The king and the queen mother hail from royal families, but this is America, so the Ashanti executive council decided to hold elections in the area’s Ghanaian community.
Boateng and Achiaa won three-year terms and report directly to their boss: King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, who lives in Kumasi, Ghana.
“In the Western world, people believe in life insurance,” Boateng says. “Well, in our culture, our insurance is our people, each other. If one person is in trouble, 10 people come to help. We don’t want to lose that.”
The entire royal court is replicated in Washington, complete with a chief linguist, who in days gone by spoke to the public in the royals’ stead. There’s a royal adviser, who works by day as a driver for the elderly. The queen mother is a businesswoman who runs a West African “one-stop shopping store,” in an Alexandria strip mall.
“We want to blend our culture with the politics of America,” the king says. In a sign that they are truly trying to combine American ideas and notions of a divine ruler, they will continue to have elections, but the committee did away with term limits. They are royals, after all.
“These jobs are normally for life,” says Boateng, chuckling. “So, here in America, we decided that as long as you love your people and are good to them, you should be allowed to try and run for king as many times as you can. Plus, it’s wonderful fun.”
Then he and the queen mother shimmy onto the dance floor.